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Topical Questions

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

Next week, we will start negotiations with the EU on our future relationship, and I will shortly make a statement to the House on our approach. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the transition period will end at the end of this year. We are working closely with businesses and border groups on preparations for the end of the transition period, and I will be meeting representatives from our ports, freight and haulage sectors later today.

I take this opportunity to welcome to the Front Bench my strengthened and hugely talented ministerial team. I look forward to working with them to deliver on our priorities in the months ahead: overseeing the transition period, strengthening the integrity of our precious Union, ensuring that our constitution is fit for the 21st century, and reforming our civil service and public sector in line with the people’s priorities.

The SNP Scottish Government’s groundbreaking legislation ensures that everyone who chooses to make their home in Scotland, including refugees and EU citizens, can vote. That follows up on the enabling of votes at 16, which the Government here continue to oppose. Will the Minister now look to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament towards a more inclusive democracy, or have this Government given up entirely on democracy?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for outlining the approach to the franchise that the Scottish Government take, but one of the most important lessons that democracy teaches us is that we must respect votes. Of course, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in the referendum in 2014, and I am afraid his party still refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of that referendum.

T4. I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend confirm his commitment to strengthening our precious Union. Would he be happy to expand on how he would like to do that? (901000)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. The truth is that our United Kingdom is proof positive that a union of nations is stronger together, and it is important that we ensure that the benefits of our Union are spread equally. That means making sure that public sector jobs are deployed effectively in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It also means that the strength of our Exchequer is the foundation that our economy provides for human flourishing across these islands. All these things are reflective of the strength of our Union, the single most successful political union and enterprise that anyone has seen on this earth, and that is why it is so important that we fight for it from Fermanagh to Forfar and to every part of England and Wales as well.

As the father of a 16 and a 17-year-old, I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not in the least scared of them.

T6. I am very proud to be part of a party that is delivering on leaving the EU and that is investing billions in our health and education sectors. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that his Department is taking on public procurement to make sure that that money is spent wisely? (901002)

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. She will be aware that leaving the EU is a golden opportunity to reform our procurement rules. We must cut red tape. We must drive innovation and make it easier for small businesses to win those public sector contracts. We will achieve that by creating a bespoke system for British businesses that also complies with our international obligations.

May I ask the Secretary of State, and explicitly him on this question, what role does Dominic Cummings have in the Cabinet Office, and will he outline his professional and personal relationship with him?

The gentleman concerned is a special adviser who works for the Prime Minister. All special advisers work for the Prime Minister. I have the highest regard for the special advisers who do such a wonderful job, supporting the Government in the delivery of the people’s priorities.

Yesterday, the former Chancellor said that he had resigned because of the interference of Dominic Cummings and the working arrangements of what is the second office of state. Never before has such a senior member of the Government resigned because of the dictates of an unelected official. Is it now Mr Cummings and his weirdos and misfits who are running this Government? How many other Sabiskys are lurking around in Departments, and how does the right hon. Gentleman now fit in to the operation and mechanics of government?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. [Interruption.] Forgive me. It is only a matter of time, I suspect. The broader point is that the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and No. 10 work seamlessly together to ensure that the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the last general election, to strengthen our United Kingdom, to level up our economy and to make sure that people have the opportunity to excel in every sphere are carried out with harmony, unity and energy.

T8. Given the ridiculous bluster and sabre rattling that we have heard from the European Commission in the past few days, what assessment have the Government made of the damage the European Union would do to its own economy if it denied itself access to the United Kingdom market? (901004)

My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. It is the case that the European Union exports more in goods to the UK than we export to the EU. Were some voices—I stress that it is a minority of voices in the European Union—to prevail and were they not to progress these negotiations in the way that, I am sure, we would all want to see, there would be damage to the EU’s economy, and that is the last thing that I want to see.

T3. Does the Government intend to legislate for the proposals in the 2018 review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, or will they conduct a new review? (900998)

We were clear in our manifesto that we are committed to equal and updated boundaries, and we will bring forward proposals in due course on how to meet that commitment.

In February 2019, the deputy national statistician said that, for the census to go ahead as planned in March 2021, the legislation needs to be passed this April. Does my hon. Friend agree that delays to the laying of the census order now means that it is impossible for that legislation to be passed before April, and what is being done to ensure that the census will take place in March next year?

My hon. Friend has clearly already got himself into the detail of the Department in the most admirable way, which is what we would expect from the new Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. He is right that this legislation is pressing and that behind it sits a very large programme being delivered by the UK Statistics Authority, with which I work closely. We will bring forward the order shortly to Parliament, and I look forward to its scrutiny in this place so that we can have a successful census in 2021.

T5. Was Andrew Sabisky recruited to work on the defence and security review that the Prime Minister announced yesterday? (901001)

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not think it odd that the very people who want votes at the age of 16 changed the law so that 16-year-olds cannot buy cigarettes or go into a tanning salon, and does that not reveal just how empty their aspirations are?

My hon. Friend, in typically pithy fashion, draws attention to the fact that when we consider the whole question of when people reach the age of maturity, the landscape is complicated. The previous Labour Government—this was led by Ed Balls—raised the participation age in education to ensure that 17 and 18-year-olds had to be in employment, education or training. That was a welcome recognition of the need to support young people to be everything they can be at the appropriate moment. This Government are committed to ensuring that young people have the right opportunities, but it is important to acknowledge that, for example, even though young people can apply to join the armed forces at 16, they cannot be deployed in a battlefield situation until they are at least 18. It is important, when discussing 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, to appreciate the complexity of the situation and to show sensitivity.

T7. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, when it comes to Andrew Sabisky, we should call a Spad a Spad. Can he confirm whether someone appointed as a Government political adviser, even on a contractor basis, can in any way be exempt from the Spad vetting process or the requirement for prime ministerial approval? (901003)

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, pointed out earlier, there is a difference between special advisers, who are appointed by and work for the Prime Minister, and contractors, who exist in all Departments.

Why does my right hon. Friend not prevent enterprises from bidding for Government contracts unless they can demonstrate a record of having paid their suppliers on time?

Companies do have to demonstrate that, and if existing suppliers do not comply with the targets we have set, they will be booted off the supplier list.

T9. This morning, I did a quick Google search—other search engines are available—for “Government jobs”, which came up with dozens of Government positions described as being inside IR35. That is the worst of both worlds, because an individual would be taxed as an employee but would have no employment rights. Does the Cabinet Office agree that that is an untenable state of affairs for people working for the Government? (901005)

The hon. Gentleman raises a thoughtful point. He will be aware that Her Majesty’s Treasury has led a review of those rules. I think that we all agree that we want to see employees treated accurately and fairly, whichever category they fall into, and of course that the public purse is protected by taxes being brought in and made available for public services. I am happy to look at the matter in slightly more detail if he thinks there is something beyond that.

I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the immense work it has done over many years for those who suffer with mental health challenges when they return from operations. The situation is difficult. There is no doubt that the model of healthcare for our veterans is fundamentally changing, to a realisation of the responsibility that the NHS has towards those who serve. Within that model of care, there is a role for everybody. As we undergo that transition, services are available and their uptake is being monitoring every single day.

T1. Apologies, Mr Speaker, for not being in my place earlier.Since 2017, and under successive Tory Governments, civil service leaks have apparently become commonplace. Have the Government carried out an assessment of why so many civil servants now seem to believe that it is in the public interest to go behind the backs of Ministers and leak information? (900996)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question. Civil servants must of course abide by the civil service code, and we deprecate the leaking of any Government information. I will reflect hard on the point behind her question.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of Combat Stress. May I point out that Combat Stress is facing a crisis because the Government are withdrawing funding for the 1,200 or so veterans who use its services every year? There is now an instance of a veteran taking their own life because they were refused treatment by Combat Stress and referred back to their GP. This is a very serious situation. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that Combat Stress gets the funding it needs to deliver the care to the veterans it looks after?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his work with Combat Stress. The reality is that Combat Stress is facing challenges at this time, and not exclusively because of issues with Government contracts. These challenges are reflected across the third sector because mental health care is changing. We must always be driven by the evidence about what works when it comes to accessing and treating more and more people, as the awareness of mental health goes up. I have met Combat Stress a number of times, and I have met my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. I am happy to continue meeting to find a solution to this very difficult problem, the answer to which is not always throwing money at it and hoping that it gets better.

In response to my earlier question, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, said that no other European country grants non-citizens voting rights. I think that might have been slightly erroneous. Portugal grants Brazilians who meet a certain threshold voting rights at the national level, and there is a similar arrangement in Scandinavian countries through the Nordic Passport Union. Will the Minister think again about our out-of-place system, whereby people who may have lived here for 20-odd years, people who pay tax here and even people who may have been born here, are not able to vote here? At least, let us open the conversation.

To be clear, I said that that was the case as far as I was aware, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for adding two further examples to the debate. He is right that we should be aware of such examples and have that conversation, but the Government’s stance is as I set out earlier—that it is reasonable and right to focus on the voters who are currently enfranchised by the Representation of the People Acts. I think that citizenship restrictions are commonplace for participation in national elections across not only the EU but most democracies, and the weight of evidence is with the Government’s position.

We intend to take forward policy to ensure that British citizens around the world—who may have travelled far from Britain but are none the less still British citizens—can vote in elections. That is how our democracy should be run. I look forward to speaking further with the hon. Gentleman. I understand from this morning’s Order Paper that he has joined the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, so I look forward to further such discussions in time.

Some Welsh companies wishing to bid for public contracts in Wales frequently find themselves unable to do so because of EU procurement requirements. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that procurement regulations will be changed post the implementation period to enable Welsh companies to bid for contracts in Wales?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some big opportunities for us to change those procurement rules. I have already had conversations with the devolved nations, and I will visit them shortly to take forward and listen to the ideas of businesses so that we can ensure that the new rules and regimes reflect their needs.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might want to be very careful with the answers he gives to the House about Mr Sabisky in relation to the defence and security review—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) a moment ago—because he well knows that teams of civil servants have been working on that review for some time; it did not just start yesterday, when the Prime Minister announced it. Can he answer this question: did Mr Sabisky meet any of the officials working on the defence and security review—yes or no?

I welcome the veterans interview guarantee, but I have spoken to veterans in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where we have quite a number, and sometimes the issue relates to pre-employment in that they need help to prepare for being ready for an interview. Will the Minister give some idea of whether we can support them on that?

Preparing those who have served for civilian life is a huge part of what we do. We put a lot of money into the Career Transition Partnership. Its statistics out today show that veterans have an 86% employment rate, and that continues to rise year on year. They have a higher employment rate than the civilian cohort. We are not resting on our laurels. We will continue to do all we can in the “pre” phase before individuals leave service to make sure that they have the best possible opportunity to make the most of their skills when they rejoin civilian life.